In the NFL, there are smart people with legitimate processes who can defend their decision making by pointing to a previous history of success. Then, there are coaches who piggyback off the idea that everyone must have some kind of mystical process, and believe that by referencing such a thing it negates the need for any direct criticism.
Since Joe Judge’s arrival as coach of the Giants, we have been kept at an arm’s length from understanding his process. We only knew that he had one, or thought that he had one. He sold himself as a teacher, a from-the-roots culture changer who could clean a lot of those hard-to-reach places that the franchise had left cobwebbed since the halcyon days of Tom Coughlin. Despite a bizarrely constructed offensive coaching staff and an uneven roster, Judge succeeded in gaining positive coverage when he arrived in 2020, thanks to some unorthodox, headline-grabbing tactics, like practice laps and tennis balls taped to the hands of his defensive backs, which conjured the memory of some benevolent old high school coach. The Giants played above their relative skill level during his first year and nearly backed their way into the postseason (albeit in the weakest division in recent memory). The process, it seemed, was working.
This kind of early success tightens a coach’s grip on the unknown, making it harder to know what he actually has the hang of and enabling him to obscure what shortcomings get revealed publicly. When things are working, you don’t have to explain it. When people believe there is forward momentum, the benefit of the doubt follows like a trained show dog.
But Judge, who was fired by the Giants on Monday after two seasons with a 10–23 record, squandered that mysticism faster than any coach in recent memory. In the span of just a few weeks, the magician was no longer commanding the stage. We could see the rabbit falling out of the hat. We could see the coin with two heads and the deck of cards full of spades. For a coach that Giants ownership wanted so badly to succeed, his performances in public over the final few weeks of the season only had to be adequate for him to make it to a third year. His grip on the idea that there was a functional process had to be tepid at best.
That obviously did not happen. Behind the scenes, there was absolutely unhappiness. There was a miserable coaching staff slogging into the abyss. But there was also a chance to save it all, to blame this season on injuries, to blame it on Dave Gettleman, the team’s outgoing general manager, or to blame it on the former offensive coordinator, who was never really Judge’s ideal candidate to begin with. Because, there’s a process, right? If only we can dial in to the process.
Judge proceeded to flippantly insult other more successful active coaching staffs and belittle the ones that came before him. He began to make grandiose assertions about the success of the process—saying players were ”begging” to stay in New York—and struggled significantly to back those notions up on the field. Following a 26-point loss against the Bears, Judge praised the success of his kick coverage unit. He praised his willingness to run the ball and defended the lack of rushing success by saying that, well, obviously it didn’t work out because they were expecting us to run. This was before an epic 2,000-word diatribe that famously referenced “clown show” organizations fighting on the sideline, and previous Giants regimes when players were planning vacations and showcasing their golf clubs in December.
Sunday, after Judge twice quarterback sneaked on the same drive simply to gain himself enough room to surrender punt, he said it was actually not a lack of confidence in his team but a vote of confidence in his defense. He referenced his post-Bears media conference as if the attention surrounding his words were simply a media creation.
It was in those moments that he finally lost the ability to create illusion. Judge may be all the things he claims to be publicly; tough, fair, honest and determined. But he also failed, in that moment, to keep up the charade that this thing was headed in any sort of direction. He lost the benefit of the doubt. He lost the illusion of the process. In some places, that is forgivable. In New York, after billing yourself as a breath of fresh air, it is self-destructive.
For a coach so dependent on this idea, the reveal was devastating to his candidacy. Giants ownership had bought the package. It had abandoned second-guessing. It was ready to ride out the rough patches. Then the final weeks of the season came and went. Judge went from breezing through on his way to a third year to tangled in a web of his own hubris.
While that wasn’t part of his process, it ultimately revealed the inherent flaws in whatever Judge was trying to accomplish, if one could even call it a process.
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